A non-binding referendum on an intersection and a mayoral race some saw as foregone conclusions, along with a council field littered with incumbents, combined to create a perfect storm of voter apathy this municipal election.

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This article was published 25/10/2018 (1128 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A non-binding referendum on an intersection and a mayoral race some saw as foregone conclusions, along with a council field littered with incumbents, combined to create a perfect storm of voter apathy this municipal election.

Turnout for the 2018 Winnipeg civic election came in at 42 per cent, a decrease of eight percentage points – or 20,000 fewer votes – from 2014. It’s the lowest turnout the city has seen since 2006, when only 38 per cent of Winnipeggers hit a polling station.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Jonathan Hildebrand (left) and Tricia Chestnut, campaign volunteers, tear down the office for Brian Bowman's mayoral campaign the morning after the election.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jonathan Hildebrand (left) and Tricia Chestnut, campaign volunteers, tear down the office for Brian Bowman's mayoral campaign the morning after the election.

"It was at the mark that I would have expected, given that an incumbent mayor was in place. Most people expected Brian Bowman would be re-elected. In a lot of ways that doesn’t really motivate people to turn up to vote," said Shannon Sampert, a political science professor at the University of Winnipeg.

"That’s unfortunate, because there were some interesting races at the ward level. There were new councillors being voted in. It would have been nice to see the turnout go up for that."

While engagement fell from 2014, the turnout was fairly consistent with other recent elections in large Canadian cities. Toronto and Ottawa, whose citizens went to the polls Oct. 22, had turnout rates of 41 and 42 per cent, respectively. Vancouver’s election on Oct. 20, meanwhile, had a turnout of 39 per cent.

Political engagement at the city level is traditionally tough to come by. Turnout rates come in lower for municipal elections than for their provincial and federal counterparts.

Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, thinks the lack of political parties at the municipal level plays a part in that. He also thinks some people just don’t consider municipal governments all that important.

"Some people are fairly dismissive of city governments. A lot of people take it for granted and then only get up on their feet and howl when something goes wrong," Thomas said.

"In some sense there’s not much more we can do, except convince people that city government is important and that who leads city government is important."

Sampert echoed Thomas’s comments, suggesting there are various ways the lack of formal party politics at the local level can play into voter disengagement.

"Parties also sometimes drive up voter turnout because people can say, 'I don’t necessarily know who to vote for, but I always vote for this party.' So, in a way, it’s easier to vote," Sampert said.

When compared to Brandon, Winnipeg’s engagement was sky-high this election. Less than 17 per cent of residents in the Wheat City chose to participate in the democratic process.

One silver lining in Winnipeg, according to Sampert, is that advance voting was up this year, coming in at 39,500. That’s an increase of roughly 9,000 votes from 2014.

"That’s a really good sign. It’s a sign of success for the people who are organizing elections in the City of Winnipeg. We’ve seen a continuation of efforts to make access easier for those voters, by offering it shopping centres, grocery stores," Sampert said.

In the lead up to the election, many thought the referendum on Portage and Main might motivate more votes. There are two reasons why Sampert thinks the exact opposite may have been the case.

Polling prior to the election seemed to show the vote on Portage and Main was a foregone conclusion, with a significant number of respondents suggesting they had no intention to vote in favour of re-opening it to foot traffic. The issue was also discussed endlessly, leaving many with "Portage and Main fatigue" by Oct. 24.

"Specific issues can lead to spikes in voting, but Portage and Main didn’t become that issue. I know some people felt that it took debates in the civic election away from some of the larger issues, it overshadowed them," Sampert said.

"The polling that had come out also revealed that it was a lost cause. That can lead people to think, ‘What’s the point? It’s obvious what the outcome is going to be. I want to stay at home and watch the Jets.’"

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
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